The Unique Work of Lester Douglas

Lester DouglasJust as I had assembled my notes for a short sketch of the noted typographer, Lester Douglas, I received a phone call from Washington to the effect that he had died, at the age of 67, on May 30, 1961.

Having worked with LD (his mark always bore the italic ‛L’) for the past few months on the production of a small book of pressmarks for his Press of the Bald Eagle, illustrated by 33 of his friends, I was grieved to learn that his active career was at an end. It is somehow fitting that he was engaged in the preparation of still another book, and a very personal one at that, just prior to his death.

As a typographer, Lester Douglas was unique, since his work encompassed the area of both commercial printing and limited edition book design. His first job in the graphic arts was with American magazine, where as assistant art director, he became responsible for its redesign in a fresh new style.

After his period with American, Douglas set up as one of the earliest freelance typographers. Later he became a partner in an advertising agency. He was an early supporter of the program of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, becoming an honorary life member of that organization.

In 1928 he was appointed art director for Nation’s Business magazine, and for its parent organization, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. He retired from this post in 1952.

During his affiliation with the C of C, Douglas maintained his interest in book design, based upon an early admiration for the work of Rogers and Updike. It was his belief that the great printers of the past were innovators and experimenters. His own work is indicative of that credo.

Doug’s independence as a book designer is nowhere better acknowledged than in his Four Gospels, which he himself published in 1930. He selected for this set of books a type which was then quite new, and scarcely one which his contemporaries approved as fitting for a religious work. This was the sans serif, Kabel, designed by Rudolf Koch. In the lightface weight, Kabel blended perfectly with the line illustrations of Lewis Daniel.

Paul A. Bennett, in an introduction to Notes Along the Typographic Way, produced by the Washington Chapter of AIGA in 1949, stated, “If there’s one element noticeable in the work of Lester Douglas besides its typical American vigor and arresting qualities, I’d say it was the thinking behind it. And that’s an element not exactly common in the arrangement of type and pictures.”

In 1959 Douglas was honored by the Library of Congress. Dr. Mumford, the librarian, agreed to maintain a complete collection of the work of Douglas in one unit in the rare book rooms of the Library. It was the first time that such an agreement had been granted by a librarian of Congress. During the same year, the University of Minnesota Library announced the procurement of a complete collection of LD books and other graphic works.

Lester Douglas was devoted to helping young people who had an interest in the graphic arts and was always anxious to assure that they establish their own methods of approach to design. This desire is perhaps best expressed by the designer himself in a paragraph from Notes Along the Typographic Way:

“My concern today is with the work of the younger designers who may believe that new ‛norms’ of typographic design should come with each new invention of art pattern—that what was good yesterday may have no application to today’s needs—that type masses should be just one element of picture pattern. I believe that such designers are as wrong as the old-timers, the traditional standpatters, who have declared that ‛new pattern can be nothing but mere cleverness in the selection and arrangement of type, and that originality is no more than attempting to be different.’ ”

This article first appeared in the November 1961 issue of The Inland Printer/American Lithographer.

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